Rice balls could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich. Take a handful of rice, pat it around a savory filling, wrap it in nori, and you have a delicious meal or snack. Our friends in Japan make rice balls (onigiri) for lunch, to carry on outings or to work, and to send home with us on the airplane so we have something good to eat. While Hisayo was visiting, I asked her to show me how to make them so we could serve them to the Japanese woodworking class for lunch. Onigiri are fun to make as well as to eat, and it’s fun to stuff your mouth with all the Japanese words, too.
Rather than seasoning the onigiri rice with salt, I like to sprinkle them with gomashio (a condiment of toasted sesame seeds and sea salt) or furikake (translated as “rice seasoning”). Furikake is an ingenious mixture of crunchy dried flavorings to sprinkle over plain rice. The ingredients vary–wasabi fumi furikake features wasabi, and katsuo fumi furikake features shaved bonito flakes. Other ingredients include sesame seeds, seaweed, mustard or other green s, tiny dried fish, soy sauce, and sake or mirin.
I learned about furikake from Tombo (“Dragonfly”), a woman who runs a very small restaurant in Japan. Dragonfly is a master of sprinkles and garnishes. She makes curls and flowers from carrots, turnips, and daikon (dyed pink with beet pickle juice), deep-fried vegetable chips, and pickles of all kinds. She loves the beautiful organic produce that she buys from a friend’s farm and doesn’t want to waste any of it, so she makes her own furikake with the dried tops of root vegetables. It’s a lovely and delicious way to preserve the goodness of frilly young carrot tops, little beet leaves, and tender turnip or radish leaves. I love that she makes something unique and delicious out of things other people might throw away.
Our rainy, cool summer has produced a bumper crop of kale, so I have been turning lots of it into kale “chips.” This is an easy way to turn armloads of kale into tasty tidbits that can be stored in jars on a pantry shelf. I love the salty, sweet, savory flavors of furikake and decided that they were a perfect way to season the kale. After trying a soy-mirin-sesame batch, I experimented with chile-garlic, mustard-balsamic vinegar, dukkah (an Egyptian nut and seed blend), and za’atar (a Middle-Eastern seasoning blend). All did wonders for the kale, and I can’t wait to try Thai ginger-lime, Mexican chipotle-garlic, and Indian curry spices.
Kale chips are not something everyone wants to eat in quantity. My friend Liz eats them every afternoon for her pick-me-up snack, but my sister Ellen describes them as a great food that you only want to eat every three years. Mixing kale chips with other ingredients to make a furikake blend to sprinkle on top of salads, rice, lentils or beans–any time you want a vitamin-rich burst of flavor and crunch–is a good solution.
Hisayo’s Rice Balls
Onigiri may be made with any medium grain rice, white or brown. We used “haiga” rice–a Japanese medium grain rice that has been milled to remove the bran, but retains the germ. It is more tender than brown rice, but more flavorful than white. The ratio of rice to filling is about 8:1, so the filling ingredients tend to be strongly flavored. Onigiri may be eaten with or without the wrapping of nori. Hisayo served hers unwrapped, with a sprinkling of sea salt. I put a bowl of Ssamjang on the table, too.
Ingredients: 2 cups medium grain rice, water for cooking (the amount of water varies with rice types: try 1 1/4 cups for 1 cup white rice, 1 1/2 cups for 1 cup haiga rice, and 2 cups for 1 cup brown rice), nori sheets for wrapping
Fillings: pitted umeboshi (sour, salted plums), katsuobushi (dried, smoked tuna flakes) moistened with soy sauce, hot smoked salmon or other fish, pickled vegetables, tuna or egg salad, “Heather’s Umami Mushrooms”, or other flavorful surprises
Wash the rice in several changes of water (do not wash haiga rice). Drain and transfer to a saucepan with a tightly fitting lid. Add the cooking water to the rice and allow to soak 30 minutes. Bring the water to a boil, boil 15 seconds, then cover tightly and turn the heat to the lowest possible setting. Steam the rice undisturbed until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender– 15 to 20 minutes for white rice, 45 minutes for brown rice. Remove from the heat and allow the rice to stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff gently with 2 chopsticks or a fork.
Hisayo uses a small rice bowl to help assemble the onigiri. Following her method, line the bowl with plastic wrap and fill it with a 1/3 to 1/2-cup scoop of freshly cooked rice. Press 2 to 4 tsp (or more, to taste) filling into the center and smooth the rice around it. Lift the plastic-wrapped ball out of the bowl and cup it in one palm. Use the other hand to press and compact the rice into a rounded pyramid shape by rotating and squeezing. Place each rice ball onto a platter and sprinkle with a topping of your choice–sea salt, toasted sesame seeds, gomashio, or furikake. Serve with a stack of nori sheets (cut in half or quarters) for wrapping.
Gomashio: A seasoning made with toasted white or black sesame seeds and sea salt, generally in a ratio of 7 parts whole seeds to 1 part salt (or about 2 tsp salt for 5 Tbs sesame seeds). Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the salt and roast, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the sesame seeds and reduce the heat to low. Roast the seeds for about 3 minutes, shaking the pan and stirring constantly until the seeds are fragrant and beginning to pop. Transfer the sesame-salt mixture to a mortar and coarsely grind with the pestle, leaving 10 or 15% of the seeds whole.
Kale Chip Furikake
Ingredients: a very large bunch kale, 1 to 2 Tbs oil, sea salt, other seasonings optional
To make kale chips: Strip the leaves off the center rib and cut or tear them into bite-size pieces. Sprinkle the kale sparingly with sea salt and drizzle with oil (choose a flavorful oil–olive, sunflower, walnut, peanut, toasted sesame…) to complement any other seasonings you may be using. Rub the leaves in the oil with your hands, as though you were preparing vegetables for roasting or grilling. Spread the kale evenly on baking sheets and place in an oven heated to 170 degrees F. The leaves should be dry and crispy after 1 to 1/2 hours. Cool and store in a tightly sealed glass jar. Mix with coarsely ground toasted sesame seeds or nuts, bonito flakes, seaweed, crushed hot chile, deep-fried tiny fish, dried onion or chives…
A second method: Like oven-dried, jammy tomatoes, kale chips may be made slowly at a relatively low temperature, or more quickly in a hotter oven. Liz makes her chips slowly in a food de-hydrator, while other folks roast them at 375 degrees, F. Prepare the kale as above. Roast about 5 minutes, or until it begins to dry a bit. Stir the kale around and flip it over, then return it to the oven and roast until crisp, another 7 to 10 minutes. Serve while still crisp, or store in a tightly sealed container.
Sesame-Soy Kale Chips: Toss chopped kale with 1 Tbs mirin, 2 tsp soy sauce, 1 Tbs sesame oil, and 2 Tbs crushed sesame seeds. Oven-dry.
Chinese Chile-Garlic Kale: Toss kale with 1 Tbs rice wine, 2 tsp chile-garlic paste, 1/2 tsp crushed Sechuan peppercorns, 1 Tbs peanut oil. Oven-dry. Mix with chopped roasted peanuts.
Mustard-Balsamic Vinegar Kale: Toss kale with 1 Tbs grainy mustard, 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, 1 Tbs whole mustard seeds, 1 Tbs olive oil, 1/4 tsp sea salt. Oven dry.
Za’atar-Kale: Toss kale with 1 Tbs olive oil, 3 Tbs chopped fresh thyme leaves, 2 Tbs crushed sesame seeds, 2 tsp dried sumac powder (or 1 Tbs lemon zest), 1 tsp chopped fresh oregano or marjoram, 1/4 tsp sea salt. Oven-dry.
Dukkah-Kale: Toss kale with 1 Tbs sunflower or canola oil, 1 tsp lightly crushed fennel seeds, 2 tsp whole cumin seeds, 2 Tbs sesame seeds, 2 Tbs sunflower seeds, 2 Tbs crushed coriander seeds, 1 tsp sweet paprika, 1/4 tsp sea salt. Oven-dry. Mix with 1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts or almonds.
Note: Dragonfly does not have an oven and makes her dried greens for furikake in small batches. She blanches the greens a few seconds in boiling water, scoops them into a bath of cold water, drains them, and squeezes out the water. The greens are sliced thinly and stirred about in a hot skillet until dry. The crumbled dried greens are mixed with gomashio and tiny dried fish to make a furikake.